Introduction to verbs in Japanese
If you want to say something in a language you need a verb in most cases and in Japanese how the verb is conjugated can change a lot depending on the verb and its use. Verbs in Japanese are not necessarily difficult to learn, once you get the hang of it, but getting to that point can take a while. In the following article you get a summarized account on how Japanese verbs work. First, a few main lessons:
- The main verb in a Japanese sentence comes last
- Verbs can further be grouped together in two main groups: regular conjugating verbs and irregular conjugating verbs
- The regular conjugating verbs are further separated in る-verbs and う-verbs
- A verb has a formal form and an informal shorter form
The main verb always comes last in Japanese
First things first, one thing you have to learn is that the main verb of a sentence always comes at the end. It can be followed by particles, but in respect to the other grammatical parts of a sentence the main verb comes last. This is counterintuitive for English speakers and most speakers of Western languages, but after a while you get the hang of it.
Regular conjugating verbs in Japanese come in two flavors: る-verbs and う-verbs
As in other languages some Japanese verbs conjugate to a regular pattern while others conjugate irregularly. The regular conjugating verbs come in roughly two flavors, る-verbs and う-verbs, or いちだん and ごだん verbs as they are officialy called. The difference between the two groups is that they conjugate differently.
But then how can you tell which verb is which? Well, as the name implies, る verbs always have the hiragana character る as an ending. All the verbs with another hiragana character at the end are う verbs. Simple enough right? But wait, there is one catch, some verbs that end with a る are in reality う verbs. For example かえる (to return) is in reality a う verb. There is no definitive rule to tell if these verbs are really る verbs or う verbs. You simply have to learn them, but there is a rule that is correct in 95 per cent of the cases:
- If the last hiragana before the る is an い or え, it is a る verb.
Ok, that’s pretty clear. But the people paying attention might have noticed already. What about かえる?? This has an え as the last hiragana character before the る but is still an う verb. Yeah, so this is the 5 per cent. You just have to learn these. As for the irregular verbs, there are two important irregular verbs you have to learn and a lot of the other irregular verbs are a combination of a noun and する, like べんきょうする (To study), so once you learn how to conjugate する, you will have come a long way.
Japanese verbs have a formal ます-form and informal short dictionary form
Furthermore, you may have read how the Japanese have a thoroughly developed culture of showing respect and this is something that is expressed among other things in verb conjugation. When trying to be polite you use the so called ます-form while you can use ‘short form’ when talking to peers. In this lesson we will be only conjugating to the polite ます-form.
The name of る-verbs (いちだん) is derived from the last hiragana character, the る. First, when you start conjugating a verb you always start with the dictionary form. This is the standard form in which you learn verbs and in this form the verb always end with a う. A few examples are:
|たべる||= To eat|
|きる||= To wear|
|でる||= To go out|
|みる||= To look|
To put this verb in the polite ます-form you do the following:
Let’s perform this operation on たべる. Take the る and replace it with ます you get たべます. And that’s it, now you have the polite form of たべる. That wasn’t so hard, was it? But what if you want to say something about the past or what if you didn’t eat.
In the table below you can see how you can conjugate further from たべます to get the past tense and a negative.
|I eat||I ate|
|I do not eat||I did not eat|
So now you can not only say you are eating something, but also that you ate something in the past. Some quick examples:
う-verbs differ from る-verbs in their ending. You can see the difference in the examples below.
|のむ||= To drink|
|さく||= To bloom (as in flowers)|
|かう||= To buy|
|よぶ||= To call|
|しぬ||= To die|
The conjugation pattern of these verbs also changes. To put う-verbs in the ます-form you change the last hiragana-character into its い equivalent. For a quick recap, you can find the hiragana-chart here.
So if you implement this on the う-verbs above you get this:
|のむ (to drink)||Present||Past|
|I drink||I drank|
|I don’t drink||I did not drink|
|さく (to bloom)||Present||Past|
|It blooms||It bloomed|
|It does not bloom||It did not bloom|
|かう (to buy)||Present||Past|
|I buy||I bought|
|I do not buy||I did not bought|
You can see the pattern right. The last う changes to an い, but for the rest the conjugation is more or less similar.
Some る-verbs conjugate like う-verbs
Until now the rules were pretty clear right? Now comes the tricky part. Some verbs that have the ending る are not る-verbs at all, but actually う-verbs, and they conjugate like う-verbs. An example is とる (to take). This verb has a る-ending but it conjugates like a う-verb, so the ます-form is とります.
So how do you make the difference? I’m sorry to say there is no definitive rule, but in 95 per cent of the cases these fake る-verbs have a different vowel before the end. If this vowel is a,o or u, in all the cases the verb is a う verb. For example, these….
…are all う verbs with a る ending. One exception is the verb かえる (to come home). The above rule will help you in most cases but do expect to be surprised sometimes.
Irregular verbs する and くる
There are a lot of irregular verbs, but good news, most of them conjugate the same. The most important irregular Japanese verbs are する (to do) and くる (to come). A lot of the other irregular verbs are a combination of a noun and する or くる so if know how to conjugate these, you know a lot.
|する (to do)||Present||Past|
|I do, I will do||I did|
|I do not, I will not do||I did not|
|くる (to come)||Present||Past|
|I come, I will come||I came|
|I do not come, I will not come||I did not come|